Who’d you want this made out to, mate?
“ ‘The Whizz-Man’ will never fit you like ‘The Whizz-Kid’ did.”
-Ben Folds, Bastard
“After a certain age, a poet’s main rival is the poet he used to be.”
At about the age of 15, I had it in my head that I might like to be a stand-up comedian. Things didn’t go all too badly, truth be told. Eventually getting through to the 2003 semi-finals of the ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ competition, I ended up playing at a fairly decent venue up in the Edinburgh Festival and got what I would honestly refer to as a decent reception.
So, why did I stop? Well, biology being what it is, I started sprouting hair from my face, losing my cheeky-chappy childish appearance and began to look like what could be accurately referred to as ‘some bloke’. Whilst this isn’t a disaster in itself, it did mean that I’d lost the discernible edge over all of the other comedians I had been billed with thus far – all that material about under-age drinking and the tedium of school life stopped being an endearing report from the front line of youth, but rather just ‘some bloke’ talking about being a kid.
So, my options were simple: raise my game and adapt my material to suit its adult narrator or give up and do something easier. As has been the case in many of my life-choices (but not all of them) I chose the latter option.
Why do I bring this up in relation to poetry? Well, we’ve all had the ‘Keats died when he was 25… can you believe that? He wrote all the stuff about nightingales and Autumn and merciless belle dames before he was 25! I mean, really can you fu-” and so forth, speech.
Of course, this is not unique to Keats. We get similar diatribes on the subject of famous wunderkinds all over the poetic landscape; Rimbaud writing his entire oeuvre in his teens before deciding that gun-running might be a better pursuit; Eliot writing Prufrock at the age of 22; Wilfred Owen capturing the full magnitude of the horrors of battle before dying at the age of 25.
As readers and writers, we lap all this up. How many of you have read the mini-biographies of your favourite writers and worked out whether you are on course to do as well as they did when they were your age? How many of you took the awful drudge you wrote as a child seriously, strengthened in your resolve because some precocious savant made a name for themselves doing so a few hundred years ago? Take this quotation from e-poseur, Daniel Pecheur:
“I love Rimbaud, he's my favorite poet. I find a kindred spirit with him and his amazing talent and original imagination fascinate me with how he infuses them into visionary works of poetry. His mind was exceptionally prodigious and yielded some of the most colorful images I've ever enjoyed in poetry. He definitely stands out to me as the pole-star of the French Symbolist movement during the 19th century, rife with bohemianism and absinthe, both of which the genius Rimbaud reveled in with his creative glory.”
It sickens me when Poetry (the omniscient collective consciousness of all who call themselves part of ‘poetry’) thinks that it is above mainstream marketing and pop-culture just because relatively few people buy its products. Thanks to the marketing shtick and hyped up mythos, we have poor, obnoxious Daniel here thinking that Rimbaud is a “kindred spirit” because of his “amazing talent” and, I assume from Pecheur’s precocious profile picture, because Rimbaud was young when he became “the pole-star of the French Symbolist movement”. Does anyone remember S-Club Juniors?
Not that I am equating the work of Rimbaud with S-Club Juniors… I am simply making the point that by focusing on how young these accomplished writers are, we have generations of readers and writers who do not aspire to their skills but to their early success.
The publishers are wise to this too. I have taken three extracts from editors’ notes on three of the most talented young writers of my generation. I have changed the writers’ names in these as it is their semantic treatment that I wish to discuss, rather than their work.
1. “Blenkinsop developed a strong interest in poetry in his early teens and published in several leading magazines, who were unaware of his age.”
2. “Stevenson started writing poetry when she was fifteen and was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in…”
3. “A strong, young enquiring voice embedded in atmospheric, superbly well-made poems that picture, question and challenge.”
It seems strange to me that publishers often feel the need to bait the marketing hook with the youth of certain poets, whilst the poets themselves often seem to be trying their hardest to cover up their infancy with grand allusions, authoritative voices and ‘grown-up’ subject matter.
I remember being at a book launch last year, where a poet (you know who he is, we seem to talk about him every 5 minutes on this website) said “this new book of mine will not get as much media attention as the last one, for my last book made me the youngest ever nominee for the Forward Prize… I assure you however that this new book of mine is much much much much better.” I am reminded of the Meat Loaf lyric, “a wasted youth is better by far than a wise and productive old age.”
Then the worries start setting in that if I haven’t got my Nobel by the time I’m 25, I’ll be a washed-up has-been on the banks of the River Literaria. Or if I make the withered old age of 28 without having a publishing deal then I will have to gracefully skulk off and take up stamp-collecting to take up my now-redundant writing-hours.
But then the answer to such concerns is always the same. “Shut up and write some poetry for a change.”
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